Why Your Cat Bites and How to Stop It | Catzio

Reasons for Cat Biting (and How to Stop It)

  1. What Does It Mean When Your Cat Bites You?
  2. Why Does My Cat Bite Me and Hold On?
  3. How to Stop a Cat from Biting
  4. Why Do Cats Bite Other Cats? (and How to Stop It)
  5. Play Safely and Never Again Ponder “Why My Cat Bites Me…”

     

    Ouch! The cat’s got a hold of your fingers again—and all you did was pet it! At first, sudden nips from your cat can be off-putting. Heck, it might even hurt your feelings, depending on your relationship. But cat biting isn’t always completely negative. In fact, in some cases, it might not have anything to do with you at all. 

    Why do cats bite their owners out of nowhere? Contrary to popular belief, cats rarely bite “out of nowhere.” There are usually warning signs. It just takes time to learn them. Now, there are many reasons why cats bite, including overstimulation from petting, as a sign of affection, controlling behavior, rough play, fear, or aggression.  

    It can be tough to discern which of the listed reasons is causing your cat to bite you. Sometimes, you can attribute the nibbling to more than one of them. The comprehensive guide below will help you identify the most likely reasons for cat biting and how to stop it. 

    A tortie cat gently nibbles on the tip of its human's finger.
    Photo by Herman Delgado on Unsplash

    What Does it Mean When Your Cat Bites You?

    Cats are just like people in that they differ significantly in their emotional expressions, especially concerning affection. Think about humans’ love languages. Some people enjoy “physical touch” as their primary sign of affection, so they may hold hands and hug a lot. The same can be true of your cat. 

    A cat that nibbles on its human while being pet or during other interactions could merely be expressing fondness. But this isn’t always obvious, so you’ll need to be mindful of how and where your cat bites. 

    Remember: A “cat love bite” should never break the skin. If it does, your cat is probably being aggressive. And new cat owners should be aware that there’s always a risk that a seemingly calm cat randomly bites your face. So, please be mindful of your cat’s triggers, while taking care to protect sensitive areas of the body.  

    On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to discern when a cat is being affectionate while they nibble, too. For instance, if your cat is gently biting on your knuckles or even strands of your hair, there’s a strong chance it’s in a loving mood and wants to show it. 

    Is My Cat Biting Me for Affection? A Few Signs to Confirm 

    Cats are more often guilty of “love bites” than anything else. But you can only be sure this is the case when you see these signs:

    • Headbutting (or bunting): Cats like to rub their heads against their humans. But it’s not just for cuddling. Cats have scent glands on numerous spots across their bodies. When a cat rubs up on you, it’s essentially marking you, strengthening your bond, and making your cat more secure in your relationship. 
    • Kneading (or “making biscuits”): This behavior, appearing similar to the human behavior of kneading dough for baking, has several meanings. A few are related to your cat’s contentment and territoriality. A lovey-dovey cat may be digging its paws into a surface (or you) for physical comfort or using its paws’ scent glands to claim its resting place. 
    • Purring: There is no single, definitive reason why cats purr. But so far, personal experience and scientific observations tell us that it’s a sound of contentment. Some believe that kittens developed the sound to tell their parents that they’re safe and okay. Into adulthood, purring is related to healing and pleasure. 

    Why Does My Cat Bite Me and Hold On? 

    When a cat randomly bites you and holds on, it’s most likely because it’s over-excited during playtime. Rough physical play is pretty normal for young kittens. Chances are, if you’ve let a nibble or a pounce slide once or twice, you’ve inadvertently taught your cat that this behavior is ok. This only encourages cat biting and pouncing further, until it becomes a real problem. 

    Still, “play aggression” is a habit that even adult cats have a hard time letting go. Experts say that this behavior reaches its peak in the mornings and evenings, as it parallels when your cat would engage in hunting behavior in the wild. Compounding factors that might predispose your cat to this behavior include a short attention span and an inclination to boredom. 

    This means that cats with few or no toys (or no interest in their current toys) are more prone to biting. But regardless of your cat’s personality and available toys, it’s important to understand that playful aggression is natural and your cat should not be punished for it (even if it hurts!). Instead, it’s best to redirect their excess energy and discourage your cat’s fixation on you as its target. 

    The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) suggests these do’s and don’ts while correcting your cat’s biting behaviors:

    Do’s Don’ts
    Give your cat interactive toys to play with (either solo or with you, twice daily) Never allow your cat to bite, scratch, or pounce on your hands
    Stop playtime calmly when it’s time to put the toys away Avoid physical punishments for unwanted play behaviors
    Redirect your cat’s playful energy toward a toy if it keeps biting you Do not confine your cat in a “time out” after it plays too roughly (this could worsen its temper and behavior)
    Recognize your cat’s outward signs of over-excitement during play (e.g., dilated pupils, harsh vocalization, etc.) Never react to a cat bite, scratch, or pounce with anger, a raised voice, or another form of aggression
    Give your cat a bell on its collar, so it can’t sneak pounce on you
    Consider getting your cat a playmate so it can burn off its energy, even when you’re away 
    Take your cat out for walks on a leash and harness—this is an excellent source of healthy stimulation
    A "Do's and Don'ts" table showing cat owners how to avoid asking the question "Why do cats randomly bite?" with preventative steps.

    Why Does My Cat Bite Me After I Pet Him? 

    Cat biting during a nice belly-rub session can catch you off-guard. One moment, you and your kitty might be enjoying one another’s company, and the next, you’re getting swatted at. Naturally, one of your first thoughts might be, “What the heck did I do?” Rest assured that most of the time, you didn’t actually do anything in particular. It’s just another one of your cat’s natural overstimulation responses. 

    Some behavioral experts refer to this behavior as “petting-induced aggression.” It’s quite common in cats, as many tend to have a love-hate relationship with physical affection. Since they’re not as social as dogs, petting and other types of touching are not a part of their standard instinctual repertoire. While they do occasionally enjoy being stroked, there are three theories as to why they’ll hate it at times:

    • Cats have a lower physical sensitivity threshold than dogs. Cats are a bit picky when it comes to receiving touchy affection from their humans. Your kitty might enjoy it initially, but the repetitive strokes might start to get on its nerves. (You might have the same reaction if someone was scratching your back for too long. After a few minutes, it’s just numbing and no longer welcome.)
    • Your cat may be in pain, or you touched a sensitive part of its body. You might be unaware of spots on your cat’s body that are either highly sensitive to certain pressure levels or in pain. This is more likely with older cats, as they’re often develop joint and muscle problems. If you accidentally hurt it, your cat might snap or swat at you defensively.
    • Your cat may be trying to assert its dominance. Your cat may be a bit controlling and use biting as a way of maintaining control over your interactions. If you stop petting when your cat bites at you to say “enough,” you’re essentially granting them dominance in those situations. So, be mindful of how you pull back when this happens. 

    These are all relatively easy triggers to identify and reasons to understand. You just need to spend enough time with your cat to predict bites and avoid them. 

    A bicolor black and white cat gnaws on its human's fingers, pawing at their arm, as the cat receives pets on the head.
    Photo by Crina Doltu on Pexels 

    How to Stop a Cat from Biting

    If you have to ask the question, “Why does my cat keep biting me?” chances are, you’re missing some crucial signs that could offer some obvious warning signs. By observing your cat’s behavior over time, you’ll start to notice things that tip you off to your cats intent to “strike.” 

    Most of the time, biting is pretty easy  to manage (that is, if the cat hasn’t developed a more severe aggression problem). But only if you can confidently recognize the warning signs. Here are a few key behaviors that might indicate your cat is about to bite:

    • The cat’s head is turning toward your hand (maybe unusually slowly), or it’s pawing at your hand
    • Aggressive tail movements:
      • Thrashing or thumping: This is a clear sign that your cat is angry or annoyed. 
      • Twitching (specifically the end of its tail): This is a hunting or playful behavior. Although it’s not aggressive, remember that pouncing on and nipping at your hands is unacceptable behavior. 
      • Swishing: If your cat is slowly moving its tail side-to-side, it might be targeting something. It generally signals that your cat is getting ready to pounce. Move your hands away, and don’t allow your cat to get a hold of your fingers. 
      • Quivering: This is similar to twitching. However, it’s easy to distinguish the difference since the tail will be straight up (so the whole tail is involved, rather than just the tip). This generally means that your cat is excited to see you. 
        • Note: If your cat is up against a wall when its tail is quivering, this could mean that your cat is urine marking. 
    • Your cat has “airplane ears,” meaning the ears are lying flat against its head, signaling irritation, frustration, or fear
    • The cat’s body posture is tense, with the back arched
    • The cat’s fur is standing up, called “piloerection”

    Once you can recognize all these signs, you’ll have a functional foundation on which to base your correction methods. Here are a few suggestions on what those techniques should be. 

    Teach Your Cat Appropriate Play Behavior

    Practicing safe play is essential to learning why kittens bite, in particular, and can help keep you and your cat safe with proactive training. It’s especially important for cats that grew up without their siblings (or spent minimal time with the litter). 

    Without that early socialization, your cat may not have had the opportunity to recognize when it’s hurting another person or animal during play. So, it’s more likely to nip, swat, pounce, and engage in other types of rough physical play. Although it’s best to stop these behaviors as early in life as possible, adults with these tendencies can still be corrected. 

    To begin teaching your cat how to play appropriately, you’ll need to first establish playtime boundaries. The most important one has been mentioned already so far: Never allow your cat to use any part of your body as a toy or target. The body parts that your cat will most likely latch onto are your hands, feet, and hair. 

    Allowing your cat to grab hold of you too often will effectively encourage this behavior, which is unhelpful for both of you. However, correcting this isn’t as simple as pulling your hand away – in fact, that’s the opposite of what you want to do. 

    Yanking your hand out of your cat’s mouth will only increase your risk of injury and infection, as you’re scraping your hand against its teeth. Plus, it might also encourage your cat to bite down even harder, pounce on you, or chase after you. Instead, it’s best to use the techniques below to avoid any unnecessary injuries. . 

    Tips and Tricks for Ideal Play Times

    One of the most important elements of teaching your cat appropriate play behavior is redirection. This means that you’re taking your cat’s attention away from something it shouldn’t be on (e.g., your fingers) and turning it toward the correct object (i.e., a toy). To redirect your cat’s aggression or overexcited play behavior (or train them before aggressive biting and other behavior sets in), use these tips.

    Integrate Multiple Toys into Your Playtime 

    Cats love using several different types of objects to entertain themselves. While interactive toys like a mechanical flopping fish are an excellent choice for most felines, this may not keep their attention for too long, as it only engages one aspect of their predatory instincts. Here are a few other kinds of toys to integrate into playtime:

    • Small toys your cat can pick up: Although large toys can be fun for your cat, at some point, it will want to pick the item up and walk around with it. This is why smaller, moderately-sized products like plush toys are ideal. 
    • Catnip toys: Many people support the use of catnip for olfactory stimulation as part of environmental enrichment for domestic cats. Essentially, it creates the cat equivalent of feeling “high” for 15-30 minutes after consumption or exposure. Thus, catnip toys are an excellent way to add another level of enjoyment to your cat’s playtime. 
    • Scratching post: Scratching isn’t necessarily a part of a cat’s “play,” but it is a significant part of how they relax and relieve themselves when at home. (This is why you should almost never consider declawing over redirection.) The main objective of scratching is to place the cat’s scent on a specific object or surface. This also helps your cat get more comfortable for other parts of play, as it removes the transparent claw sheath. 
    • Toys your cat can “kill:” Few things are more rewarding to your cat – or any predator –  than being able to capture “kill” its prey after doing the hard work of chasing it down. So, it has to be able to pounce on the toy and stop it from a specific action sequence. This is why squeaky toys are so rewarding since they let out a “scream” like a little mouse. 
    • Restrict playtime with toys to only 10-15-minute intervals. This one is tough since it can be so much fun to bring certain toys into playtime—your cat won’t want to stop! But you have to be smart about it: Too much time with specific toys—especially interactive ones—will inevitably cause your cat to become bored with them. Switch up the toys every 15 minutes maximum or give your cat short playtimes throughout the day. 

    Discourage Hunting Behavior

    It’s not always easy to recognize when your cat is behaving unacceptably. Besides, any desire for an answer to the question of “Why is my kitten biting me?” might fly out of the window when you realize just how cute its pouncing and nibbling are.

    (Admit it—watching a tiny kitten “hunt” and pounce on your toes is adorable.)

    Still, you must be able to take a step back and recognize when a behavior requires correction, even if it’s cute. Latching onto your pant leg, pawing at your hair, and similar habits are all natural hunting behavior that helps the little one develop its eye-paw coordination

    "My cat keeps biting me and pouncing." Oh yeah? Feeding a high-meat diet can help reduce unwanted hunting behaviors, like those displayed by this long-haired, orange tabby cat stalking intensely through the grass on a sunny day. Click the image to read the article about reducing hunting behaviors with meaty diets on Catzio.

    Although they can be harmless, depending on the target, these tendencies can lead to bad behavior in the future. That said, it’s best to give your cat a sharp “no” for every swipe at your clothes. No hitting or imprisoning it in its carrier—just “no” and preventing further hunting opportunities. 

    Avoid Situations that Induce Fear 

    Another one of the main reasons why your cat might bite you is out of fear. Fear responses are among the most hazardous triggers for cat biting, as they’re harder to control and correct. And there aren’t always rational explanations as to why your cat might have reacted fearfully to something. 

    Further, even if you can identify the specific circumstance, item, animal, or person that spooked your cat, it can take a long time to desensitize your cat to this stimulus. With this in mind, it’s best to give your cat an overall peaceful home life and exercise discretion on which types of excitements you allow to disrupt your routine.

    For example, are you planning to invite people over? If so, think about whether your cat has interacted with other people before. If not, it might be a good idea to give your cat a “safe room” to minimize stress as much as possible. If it has socialized with people before, consider how much your cat might be triggered by certain noise levels or by your guests’ pets. 

    Now, what happens if your cat does wind up in a scary situation, such as visiting the vet in its carrier? In this case, the best thing to do would be to reinforce desirable responses with treats. For instance, if a fearful cat swats at you, respond with a firm “no,” walk away, and do not engage further. 

    When it calms down and either lowers its hackles, stops hissing, or allow you to pet it, offer a treat to show that this behavior is ideal. This will make it clear to your cat which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. 

    A pair of tabby cats, one dark and one orange, entangled as they wrestle each other in a cardboard box.
    Photo by Arina Krasnikova on Pexels 

    Why Do Cats Bite Other Cats? (and How to Stop It) 

    Not all cat biting is directed at humans. Other cats get bitten, too, unfortunately. If you live in a multi-cat household, it’s crucial to know how to stop them from nipping at one another. Most of the time, this is a relatively straightforward (but lengthy) process. Biting in this context is much easier to manage, as the reason is typically territoriality. 

    Even if they share the same household, cats can be highly territorial and will take certain rooms or entire sides of the house as their own. If another one of your cats wants to venture into that portion of the home, it may be putting itself at risk of getting attacked. 

    Here’s an expert-recommended way of handling aggressive biting and related behavior in this context:

    1. Reintroduce the two cats (and don’t rush it). Your cats may have had a falling out if they’re behaving this way, or didn’t get a proper chance to acclimate to each other. Help reestablish their relationship by confining them to their own rooms and giving them quality time together, starting with 15-30 minutes every few days, and progressing from there. 
    2. Allow them to refamiliarize themselves with each other’s scents. After you’ve given them some occasional quality time together a few times, let them get more in tune with each other’s scents. Place them in separate carriers and position them on opposite sides of the same room. This way, they’ll see and smell each other without the risk of fighting. Repeat this over several days.
      • Note: To further emphasize that this is a positive experience, feed your cats while they’re in their carriers or offer treats. 
    3. Put the cats on leashes and repeat Step 2 without the carriers. Repeat this over several days.
    4. Release the two cats to interact freely. Only do this if you’re confident that they’ve reestablished their relationship and will not fight. If you have any doubt that the interaction will not go well, do not release the cats. 

    Consult a veterinarian or cat behavioral expert if you’re unsure about how to handle interactions between your two (or more) aggressive cats. In extreme cases, your vet might even suggest Feliway or prescriptions that help manage overstimulation and extreme behavior. 

    Play Safely and Never Again Ponder “Why My Cat Bites Me…”

    Cat biting is a very bad habit that you need to nip in the bud as early as possible. It emerges in many different contexts, from overexcitement during play to fearful reactions in scary or intimidating circumstances. 

    The best way to get control of your cat’s biting behavior is to teach appropriate play, learn its warning signals, and be proactive in managing aggression between territorial cats. 

    There are plenty of toys that can help your cat understand what is and is not appropriate during playtime. Peruse through the Catzio store to find items that will keep your cat engaged and away from pouncing on your feet and hands. 


    About the Author

    My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.

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